Whether you’re backpacking, honeymooning or simply on holiday these are the best Cairns day trips suitable for all travel styles and budgets. From the reef to the rainforest, snorkelling to swimming in waterfalls, these day trips from Cairns will provide memories to last a lifetime.
Located in Tropical North Queensland, Australia there is so much fascinating wildlife and landscapes to be explored, with each day trip offering a bucket list worthy experience not to be missed.
Our guide will also cover the best hostels in Cairns and our favourite places to eat so you have a comfortable sleep and a belly full of good food ready for your day of exploring.
HOW TO GET TO CAIRNS
If you’re wondering how to get to get to Cairns, this will depend if you’re travelling from within Australia.
Flights to Cairns
After 6 months living & working in Melbourne, we began backpacking Australia in Cairns. We booked flights from Melbourne to Cairns which cost AU$224.00 each. We use Skyscanner for the cheapest flights.
Drive to Cairns
If you’re feeling adventurous you can also road trip to Cairns, this is particularly popular if you plan on camping in Australia instead of staying in a hostel.
As an idea, you can hire a car or campervan from Brisbane then enjoy the epic drive from Brisbane to Cairns up the Bruce Highway. At over 1700km it will take you around 2 days of driving, but you will pass other stunning destinations such as Magnetic Island, Airlie Beach (for Whitsundays) and the beautiful sunshine coast.
The greyhound buses are also incredibly popular with most bus passes starting or ending in Cairns. Alternatively, Queensland Rail offers one train route from Brisbane to Cairns with departures five times per week. The Tilt Train can be expensive (find fares here) and takes 25 hours but is still a good option if you’re wondering how to get to Cairns and have time to admire the views on route.
THE BEST HOSTELS IN CAIRNS
If like us, you’re travelling on a budget you will be looking for the best hostels in Cairns. We could bet good money that any backpacker you meet will be staying in one of two options – Mad Monkeys or Gilligans.
Gilligans is one of the best hostels in Cairns if you LOVE to party. We’re talking 24/7 non stop party. If you’d appreciate some sleep before your Cairns day trips then we recommend Mad Monkeys. To us, it is one of the best hostels in Cairns for couples as they offer large private rooms and no obligation to party from dusk till dawn nor doing shots out of each other’s belly buttons which is part of the norm at Gilligans.
You could partake in the pub quizzes and drinking games if you’d like, or chill by the pool and relaxing lounge areas if you’d prefer. As our day trips from Cairns usually required an early start, we appreciated the comfortable bed and quiet air con which allowed us to sleep soundly (although sound super dull.)
There is a travel agent style office inside the hostel which is ideal for booking day trips from Cairns, but if you’re on a budget like us, it did prove cheaper to hire a car and drive yourself.
Mad Monkeys also provided a very basic breakfast (toast, instant coffee, cereal) which we took full advantage of before our Cairns day trips. It does also have a shared kitchen with all the necessary equipment for you to cook up a storm and save those extra dollars for essentials such as Irn Bru. More on that later.
There was even a free BBQ during our stay, adding further reason why we think Mad Monkeys is the best hostel in Cairns.
Our private room for 7 nights (including breakfast, Wi-Fi & Aircon) was AU$426.00
WHERE TO EAT IN CAIRNS
After a long day fighting off spiders at Dubuji boardwalk or souvenir shopping at Kuranda markets you will be wondering where to eat in Cairns on your return. Although we could cook in our hostel, after a long drive we craved something quick that we didn’t have to create so this was where our hangry selves ended up. These are also ideal places to fuel your Cairns day trips as there is nothing worse than dealing with a hungry driver!
Mother India restaurant – Mere minutes from our hostel, this Indian restaurant was a simple, no frills affair but with seriously delicious food. Service was friendly and the portions were so big we couldn’t finish. The perfect combo after a busy Cairns day trip.
Lush Pizza Co – A further reason why Mad Monkeys is the best hostel in Cairns, this place was joined on. This meant you can order pizza here but it get’s delivered to the hostel so you can enjoy it with a jug of beer from the bar. The pizza was delicious and so much better than waiting by the hostel hob for our turn to cook. They also offer nachos, chicken wings, wraps and salads.
Cairns Central – Not our usual and in no way a local gem but in fact a shopping mall. It is ideal for quick, no fuss food with all the fast food usuals but also Roll’d which is a Vietnamese takeaway restaurant that we went to more times than we’d like to admit. There is also Jamaica Blue Coffee and The Coffee Club which are ideal for takeaway coffee (don’t forget your reusable cup) before your Cairns day trip begins.
Cairns Night Markets – A firm favourite with tourists, Cairns night markets don’t just offer food from around the world but also over 70 shops offering everything from Indigenous souvenirs to Thai massage. Just make sure to arrive early in the evening when food is most fresh, not before bedtime when it’s been sat out all night.
- Jimmys Burgers & Co – We devoured insanely tasty burgers here, so good infact we went back the very next night for the same carb overload with absolutely zero regrets. They also do Boozy milkshakes which we would have loved to try, but our arteries were already crying from the burgers, chicken wings and delicious sweet potato fries.
CAR HIRE IN CAIRNS
Although you could book individual tours for your Cairns day trips, it will prove more cost effective to hire a car. There is public transport in Cairns, but again for the freedom, cost and time involved it is much easier to hire a car. It’s particularly cost effective if there is a group of you (or find some friends in your hostel) to split the rental and fuel costs.
Fuel is relatively cheap in Australia, around $1.40AUD a litre. We found the roads quiet and in excellent condition making road trips super easy and enjoyable. Don’t forget to pack the road trip essentials and to time your day trips from Cairns so that you are home before dusk as kangaroos tend to jump out into the road around this time which can prove fatal to inexperienced drivers.
We hired a car through Skyscanner which allowed us to compare deals the same way you can use it to compare flights. For car hire in Cairns it cost us AU$235.00 for 7 days. This included insurance and 2 full tanks of fuel which lasted for all our Cairns day trips.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 1: KURANDA
Cairns to Kuranda
Driving Time: Approx. 30 minutes each way.
Although we drove from Cairns to Kuranda, this is probably the least popular way to get there. The main reason the Kuranda markets are a popular day trip from Cairns is because you can take a scenic train journey or cable car to reach them.
The Scenic Railway, Kurana
If you opt for the railway from Cairns to Kuranda you will be treated to commentary throughout whilst passing via the famous Freshwater Station and Stony Creek Falls. The journey takes around 2 hours from Cairns to Kuranda via train. This includes a 10 minute stop at Barron Falls for a bird’s eye view of the famous Barron Falls.
Tickets for the scenic railway from Cairns to Kuranda are AU$50.00 one way or AU$76.00 return. There are child tickets $25 for a single and $38 return. There are also options for family tickets as well as upgrade options to include refreshments, afternoon tea etc. Photo courtesy of Wandering Far.
Don’t drive or don’t want to hire a car for your Cairns day trips? You need this tour! For best value for money, we recommend booking this Kuranda Rainforest tour as it includes hotel pick up from Cairns as well as travel on the Scenic Railway one way and the Skyrail cable car the other so you can experience both. It also allows time to explore the Kuranda markets.
The Skyrail Cable Car, Kuranda
The cable car, known officially as the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway begins at Smithfield Terminal which is around 20 minutes North of Cairns. It makes two stops on route – at Red Peak station then again at Barron Falls before arriving at Kuranda station.
The journey is 7.5km in total and the cable car dangles over the stunning Barron Gorge National Park, allowing you to travel over the treetops of the rainforest. You can even upgrade to a glass floor gondola, allowing an even better (or more terrifying) view the oldest tropical rainforest in the world.
The cable cars depart every 15 minutes and allow approx. 1.5 hours one way (including a 20 minute stop at both stations) or 2.5 hours for a round trip. Despite it’s numerous awards and promise of spectacular views, we are a tad terrified of cable cars (although we did manage to go on one in Singapore).
Also, being Scottish we’re also a tad terrified of its prices too at AU$85.00 for a round trip including a guided tour from a ranger and AU$41.00 for a child (4-14yrs.) Following a little research we did find some half day tours which included transport from Cairns to Kuranda plus cable car and railway tickets but as we’d already hired a car this wasn’t worth the money. If you’re looking for a tour with transport from Cairns, we found this tour was the best value option.
Whether you travel by gondola or hire a car, the Kuranda markets are such a fun day trip from Cairns. There are two markets – Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets and the Heritage Markets. There are numerous market stalls and shops selling everything from Aboriginal art to traditional instruments, opal jewellery and delicious homemade treats.
Surprisingly we found a Scottish shop here which, we were overwhelmed to find stocked Irn Bru. If there’s any reason to visit Scotland, it’s the sugary nectar of Irn Bru. If there’s any reason to travel from Cairns to Kuranda, it’s for Irn Bru. It’s the main thing we miss from home so were delighted to purchase some. We also stocked up on traditional Scottish fudge and very nearly purchased other delicacies such as Lorne Sausage and haggis but managed to refrain our wee excited selves. Wow, we sound cultured. Not.
There is of course local artisan gifts, souvenirs and craftmanship aplenty at Kuranda Markets – not just of the Scottish sorts. It is a vibrant, colourful place that we also found to be remarkably quiet (we visited in November.)
Book a coach from Cairns to Kuranda here which includes an entertaining local guide with commentary of the area and allows 4.5 hours of free time to enjoy Kuranda.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 2: ECO CROCODILE TOUR
Cairns to Daintree Crocodile Tour
Driving Time: Approx. 1hr 30 mins each way
If you’re looking for crocodile tours, Cairns is the place to be to view these fellas in the wild. Although, it is one of the most famous Cairns activities, we did feel a little uneasy about the ethics behind some of the crocodile tours in Cairns. However, of all the wildlife in Queensland, crocs were top of our bucket list so we did our research and found an epic, ethical tour that even used a solar powered boat.
It was one of our favourite day trips from Cairns as we were able to see these majestic creatures completely in the wild in their natural habitat – it was surreal. We booked our tour for the afternoon, but we were later told due to the tides it is better to visit in the morning as there is more chance to see the crocs.
As the boat is solar powered, this causes minimal disruption to the crocodiles as its virtually silent. It also means zero pollution in the waterways. We think due to the calmness of the boat, this encourages sightings of the crocs (even in the afternoon) as they don’t know the boat is there.
We were lucky to spot 3 huge crocodiles all basking in the sunshine as well as learn many facts about the eco-system of the area and other wildlife. Our guide was friendly and informative, even explaining that had we seen no crocodiles you can join another tour completely free of charge another time.
We paid AU$56.00 for two people for the Solar Whisper Crocodile Tours at Daintree Gateway and we urge you if you are considering this day trip from Cairns to also book an eco-friendly tour instead of viewing them in captivity.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 3: BABINDA BOULDERS & THE DEVIL'S POOL
Cairns to Babinda Boulders
Driving Time: Approx. 1 hour each way.
Not only are Babinda Boulders one of the best things to do in Cairns for free but one of the most epic natural wonders which holds great significance to Aboriginal people. The natural beauty and fascinating history made it one of our favourite day trips from Cairns.
Babinda Boulders are surrounded by lush rainforest and the stunning backdrop of Queensland’s highest mountain; Mt Bartle Frere. From Cairns, it takes around 1 hour driving south on the Bruce Highway until you reach Babinda. here are then signs directing you to Babinda Boulders.
After parking up, you will quickly see where Babinda River has carved an impressive gorge dotted with giant granite boulders. They are known locally as the Devil’s Pool due to the Aboriginal legend where a broken hearted woman flung herself into the water, with her cries believed to have violently formed the Babinda Boulders which we now see today.
Not only can you hike and explore in this fascinating area, you can even swim amongst these dinosaur-egg like rocks in the refreshing pools that surround them. Please stick to the designated pools as there has been drownings at Babinda Boulders where the water flows downstream picking up incredible speed over the large rocks.
Also be warned of march flies which are prone to plague the area – they are the evil big brother of Mosquitos and their bites can be prove painful not to mention irritating. No one wants their Cairns day trips spoiled by itching, so arrive armed with insect repellent.
We enjoyed the walking tht 1.3km track which lead to the viewing platform over the boulders. As we visited in Summer the water was quite shallow and filled with families enjoying a refreshing swim. However following heavy rainfall, the viewing platform is the best place to witness the cascades charge over the boulders, allowing some spectacular scenes.
If you are keen for camping in Australia instead of finding a hostel in Cairns, camping in Babinda is very popular. There are numerous free campsites nearby Babinda Boulders if you fancy a sleepover in the rainforest.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 4: GREAT BARRIER REEF TOUR
Cairns to Great Barrier Reef
Most tours depart from Reef Fleet Terminal which is just a 15 minute walk from the centre of town.
A Great Barrier Reef Cruise is one of the most unmissable Cairns activities. From snorkel tours to scuba diving, there are so many ways to witness this natural wonder from Cairns.
It was around a 15 minute walk from our hostel in Cairns to Reef Fleet Terminal. We checked in around 7:30am and it took us just over an hour to travel from Cairns to Great Barrier Reef. Our tour was of the “outer reef” which is said to be a better snorkel spot.
We were measured up for our stinger suits and flippers as well as safety briefed for emergencies onboard as well as in the water. It was only our second ever time snorkelling so we were both a little nervous, however the staff were incredibly friendly and there were several who watched over us to ensure we were safe. There were floatation devices for use as well as areas clearly marked for us to swim in.
Our tour included a visit to two sites, a BBQ lunch, all equipment as well as cheese & wine and live entertainment on the boat ride home. Our tour was booked as part of an activities package for our East Coast road trip, but there are several tours to choose from, such as:
- This award winning tour where you visit 2 exclusive, outer reef locations on a luxury, high-performance catamaran. Book Here.
- Another award winning tour that includes 2 outer Great Barrier Reef locations, a tropical buffet lunch, refreshments and more. Book Here.
- If you’d prefer not to swim, or you have little ones this tour includes the option to snorkel or instead enjoy the reef while staying dry including an underwater observatory and glass bottom boat. Book Here.
Make sure to be a responsible traveller and wear reef friendly sunscreen when snorkelling and also give any wildlife plenty of space. We were so lucky to witness a turtle during our cruise but it quickly disappeared due to the go-pro waving tourists trying to get up close.
Although we had an amazing time onboard, we did feel the snorkelling and coral reef was more impressive during our Whitsundays tour although nothing compared to our time in The Philippines where we saw the most colourful coral snorkelling in Bantayan and swam with numerous turtles in Moalboal.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 5: ATHERTON TABLELANDS
Cairns to Millaa Millaa Falls
Driving Time: Approx. 1 hour 30 minute (one way)
After spending all your dollar on a reef tour, you’ll be delighted to hear the next Cairns day trip is one of the most popular things to do in Cairns for free – chasing waterfalls.
If you hire a car and head for the Atherton Tablelands there are so many waterfalls next to each other that you could easily see and swim in several on the same day. The Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit is approx. 17km driving loop that includes Millaa Millaa Falls as well as some hidden gems well worth a detour.
The most famous Cairns waterfalls include the towering Barron Falls, Josephine Falls (which has a natural waterslide), Dinner Falls and Millaa Millaa Falls for those infamous Peter Andre pics (which are in fact a tourist scam as Mysterious Girl was filmed in Thailand.) We went and enjoyed our hair flip fails regardless.
If you don’t want to hire a car, we cannot recommend the Barefoot Tour of Atherton Tablelands enough. Not only was this our favourite day trip from Cairns, but hands down this is the best tour guide we have ever had.
He was hilarious from the moment he picked us up from our hostel and filled our day with so many facts and fun that we were gutted when the tour ended. The waterfalls were so spectacular a couple on our tour got engaged, with our tour guide even buying champagne for the whole bus on the way home!
Book your Barefoot Tour of Atherton Tablelands here or opt for a DIY version and drive yourself round the Cairns waterfalls.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 6: PORT DOUGLAS & MOSSMAN GORGE
Cairns to Port Douglas
Driving Time: Approx. 1 hour each way.
The Cairns to Port Douglas drive is particularly beautiful as you pass the vast sugarcane plantations. (over 20 different varieties of cane grow in the area.) Port Douglas is a popular coastal town, bustling with trendy cafes, shops and tours. One of the most popular things to do in Port Douglas is head to the Great Barrier Reef as like Cairns, there are many boat tours which leave from there or alternatively, take a helicopter flight over the reef.
A walk along Four Mile beach is one of the best things to do in Port Douglas, with the reef on one side and lush rainforest on the other it will be an unforgettable stroll.
After that long walk, head to Macrossan Street in Port Douglas which is lined with boutique shops and restaurants. Our absolute favourite is Capannina which is a beautiful gelato shop with the friendliest owners.
They gave us great tips for things to do in Port Douglas as well as ask all about our travels. We enjoyed incredible homemade cronuts with gelato INSIDE them as well as two perfect coffees. The Cairns to Port Douglas drive is worth it or that ice cream alone.
Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge
Driving Time: Approx. 30 minutes each way.
Mossman Gorge is known as the gateway to the Daintree Rainforest and it is part of the traditional homeland of the indigenous Kuku Yalanji people. There are two walking trails both of which are relatively easy, however before you can begin the Mossman Gorge walk you will need to visit the Mossman Gorge Centre to purchase a bus ticket.
The Mossman Gorge centre is a modern, eco-tourism development which educates visitors on the Indigenous significance of the area as well as safety tips and maps for the Mossman Gorge walk. There is also an art gallery showcasing work by local Kuku Yalanji artists as well as a souvenir shop and café.
In order to start the Mossman gorge walks you need to take a shuttle bus which leaves from the centre. It is AU$11.80 for an adult return ticket, with the bus leaving every 15 minutes to take you into the heart of the Gorge.
The Mossman Gorge walk itself is incredibly beautiful, with raised platforms, bridges and walkways leading the way through towering rainforest and the occasional swimming spot. It is the perfect day trip from Cairns to be surrounded by nature and exciting wildlife – we saw our first ever snake in Australia at Mossman Gorge.
CAIRNS DAY TRIP 7: CAPE TRIBULATION & DAINTREE RAINFOREST
Cairns to Cape Tribulation
Driving Time: Approx. 2hrs 45 mins each way.
Now the grand finale of all Cairns day trips – Cape Tribulation. There are so many things to do in Cape Tribulation that one day simply isn’t long enough. If you do only have one day, Cairns to Cape Tribulation is a long drive so leave as early as possible to make the most of this incredible area.
One of the best things to do in Cape Tribulation is explore the unique phenomenon of two UNESCO world heritage sites living side by side, as it is where the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef meet. Wander through the Daintree rainforest before popping out on spectacular Cape Tribulation beach. Despite the spectacular views, do not be tempted for a swim here. Unfortunately one of the most dangerous things to do in Cape Tribulation is go swimming due to the risk of sharks, jelly fish and crocodiles.
Instead enjoy the area from dry land, we particularly loved the Dubuji boardwalk which guided us through the oldest rainforest in the world – Daintree Rainforest. During our visit to Dubuji boardwalk we were the only visitors there, which was not only blissfully peaceful for us, it also meant even more wildlife came out to play.
In order to travel from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, we’d to take our rental car on the Daintree river Ferry which cost AU$28.00 (return) for literally a 5 minute journey. Although expensive, we didn’t mind the fee as all the things to do in Cape Tribulation are free – you can spend the entire day exploring the mind blowing flora and fauna without spending a penny.
Although it is one of the most popular day trips from Cairns, it is a long drive to Cape Tribulation so instead we would recommend camping in the area to embrace the natural beauty fully. Don’t forget your camping essentials!
MORE CAIRNS DAY TRIPS IDEAS
A spectacular island often compared to as paradise which thanks to its white sand beaches, turtle sanctuary and snorkelling opportunities it is one of the most popular day trips from Cairns. Better yet, it’s only a 45 minute boat ride away! You can book a full day, Eco-certified adventure tour from Cairns to Fitzroy Island for just $85! More details here.
Like Fitzroy island, Green Island is again a popular paradise for snorkelling and spotting marine life. If you prefer to stay dry you can hop on a glass bottom boat and admire the reef that way. It is the only coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef with a rainforest growing on it so a visit here is sure to be unforgettable. Tours to Green Island usually start around $100 with various options depending if you want to including kayaking, glass boat tours or even helicopter rides. Search Green Island tours here.
If you’re familiar with our endless list of travel fails, you’ll understand why we didn’t do this popular Cairns day trip. However, for many backpackers in Australia, Mission Beach is the ultimate day trip from Cairns as it is the most popular place in Australia to sky dive. Although it’s less than a 2 hour drive, I bet that road trip feels like a lifetime when you’re thinking about throwing yourself out a plane at 15,000ft. A shuttle bus return trip from Cairns is included when you book the Sky dive. Are you brave enough? Learn more about costs & options here.
There are two types of people who arrive in Cairns – those who fall in love with the epic night life and backpacker vibes and those who cannot wait to escape it. Regardless of which type you are these Cairns day trips are guaranteed to be fun and who knows you may even end up discovering your own favourite day trip from Cairns that we didn’t have time for.